Doubts about the safety of the anti-depressant Prozac and similar drugs will be strengthened this week when a professor of toxicology tells an inquest he believes it played a major role in his wife's suicide.

Doubts about the safety of the anti-depressant Prozac and similar drugs will be strengthened this week when a professor of toxicology tells an inquest he believes it played a major role in his wife's suicide.

Alastair Hay, who is Professor of Environmental Toxicology at Leeds University, is likely to prove one of the most powerful witnesses to the dangers of the drugs because of his expertise in assessing scientific evidence of chemical toxicity.

Professor Hay, who sits on a number of government committees reviewing the safety of chemicals, plans to give evidence to the government inquiry, announced last month, into claims that the class of anti-depressant drugs, including Prozac, cause suicidal feelings and withdrawal problems. The inquiry panel was first convened last December and then disbanded after several of its members were shown to have links to the drug industry.

Wendy Hay, 52, was found hanging by her husband in the garage at their home in a village near Leeds last September. She had suffered a recurrence of her severe depression and had been prescribed 20mg of Prozac daily, the standard dose, for three weeks before her death. In a note found with the body, she wrote that her depression was getting worse and she feared she would end up in a mental institution.

Professor Hay said she had started on a fraction of the normal dose for the first few days and had no problems. "Then she started to become more agitated and her symptoms worsened. She had a recurrence of suicidal thoughts."

After her death, he began searching the internet for evidence linking Prozac and suicide. "I do searches all the time as part of my work - and out came the literature. I was wiped out by it. I couldn't believe it was her medication that triggered her suicide. But I am used to sifting evidence and the evidence here is so stark."

She had been prescribed Prozac for two years from 1999-2001 during an earlier episode of depression but had found the drug difficult to get used to and Professor Hay now believes on that occasion she got better in spite of, not because of, the drug. "It's not that Prozac is a bad drug; I have friends that have benefited enormously from it. But there are some people that respond badly to it. Wendy was so devastated when her depression got worse, not better, after starting the drug. That was the turning point."

Eli Lilly, makers of Prozac, declined to comment on the case of Mrs Hay before Wednesday's inquest but said there was "no credible evidence" linking Prozac and violent and suicidal behaviour.

Professor Hay is a member of the Health and Safety Executive's working group on the assessment of toxic chemicals, known as the Watch group, and of the advisory group on toxic substances. From 1986-2002 he was a member of the medical and toxicology panel of the advisory committee on pesticides, part of the Pesticides Safety Directorate.

"I'm used to reviewing evidence. The difference here is that it was so personal. But once the inquest is over I would absolutely want to give evidence to the government inquiry into SSRIs [Selective Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitors]."

He will be backed at the inquest, which opens in Leeds tomorrow, by David Healy, a consultant psychiatrist and a leading critic of SSRIs who has submitted a report to the inquest coroner arguing that Mrs Hay was never suitable for the prescription of SSRIs and that Prozac did indeed cause her suicide.

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